3.31.2009

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century by Neil Postman


Title: Building a Bridge to the 18th Century : How the Past Can Improve Our Future
Author: Neil Postman
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 224
Challenges:
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I was first introduced to Neil Postman in college; a friend suggested Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education. Although I don't remember as much as I would like about the book, I remember digging Postman's commentary and found him very readable. A week or two ago, I thought about him again and decided to look up other books that he's written.

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century's thesis is pretty self-explanatory. Postman believes that we don't need a new future, but rather, revisit what we learned from the Enlightenment period. He suggests that "the idea of progress is one of the greatest gifts of Enlightenment" (34) and that we no longer believe that the future is moving to a golden age, as many in the past might have. Rather, we know that we are in control of our future and that scares the crap out of us.

It's interesting because this book was published ten-years ago, so some of its discourse is outdated, but others are insightful enough that I found myself saying, "yup, you're right. That time is here." For example, Postman brings up a book by Nicholas Negroponte called Being Digital where Negroponte states: "we will find that we are talking as much or more with machines than we are to humans." I think about my every day-to-day interactions and how technology has allowed me to interact with more humans, but, in a less human way. (And what I mean by this isn't so much that my moments aren't authentic when technology is used, but that there are specific aspects of what is 'human' that is lost through mediums such as e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging.) I'm not a fan of talking on the phone and admit that I would much rather text message someone for an hour to catch up than to call them. I also like how I can keep track of people using websites such as Facebook or even blogs, even though I realize that in many ways this form is rather impersonal and superficial. Alternatively, because I (as many) always have the good intentions to keep track of friends who move away and end up not, technology has allowed for the network to stay closer. I'm more or less just dumping my thoughts, because I think that, providing there is balance, it's okay to have these technologies assisting me in my interactions. It's so hard for me to remember what it was like to not have the internet to look up a quick movie quote because I can't think of it rather than in "the olden days" where I would have to call or remember to ask peers and friends when I saw them next.

I have somewhat digressed on the review of Building a Bridge, but what can I say other than there are bits and pieces of social commentary intermingled with quotes from 18th century philosophers. There are moments when I full-heartedly agree with Postman (who even in 99 as a NYU professor boasted that he didn't use e-mail) and other times when I shrug in disagreement. He's an easy read, and not filled with pretentious jargon.

Neil Postman Online (for further reading).

Finally, one last quote from the book that I really liked.

"Any fool can have an opinion; to know what one needs to know to have an opinion is wisdom; which is another way of saying that wisdom means knowing what questions to ask about knowledge." (96)

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